The 21st Century Citizen Scholar
Lou Anna K. Simon, Ph.D. President, Michigan State University
Members of the Board of Trustees, President Haas, Provost Davis, members of the faculty, graduating students, and all of your very proud families and friends—good morning and congratulations graduates!
I am honored to be here with you today and to become a member of the Grand Valley State University family.
Graduates, please join me for a moment in thanking Grand Valley, your families and your friends for making this day happen. I think we owe all of them a big round of applause.
Like many of you, I am a first generation college graduate. Unlike all of you, however, who are graduating from GVSU with numerous national titles in athletics, I received my undergraduate degree from a school that had just one real chance at a national title – in basketball – that was snuffed out by none other than Michigan State University.
Since that first commencement ceremony at Indiana State, I have attended over a hundred more and have listened to as many commencement addresses. You’ll be relieved to know that I did learn a valuable lesson from all of these that I plan to put to use today. I learned that the best and most memorable commencement speeches are the ones that are brief and to the point so, let me get right into it.
You might be surprised, or maybe even perplexed or curious by the title given for my remarks wondering, “What exactly is a citizen scholar?” Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about the responsibilities of the citizens in a democracy are a good place to start.
Jefferson was passionate about his belief that “Every [person] is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society.” In Jefferson’s view citizens must actively participate in affairs that affect them directly and affairs that have a broader impact for the common good of all. Today, we would expand this idea beyond our own Great Lakes’ borders to include the global common good.In Jefferson’s day, public service was the highest calling. It was a vocation, not an occasional act of volunteerism. It was the calling for those with the best minds and the highest levels of education. Sadly, public service is not always viewed this way today but I believe it is still one of the most important roles we are called to undertake as citizens.
As citizen scholars, you have the attributes for this calling. It is my hope that you will respond, if not today, someday. We need the best and brightest on our school boards and city councils, legislative bodies and governmental agencies. Your generation will help chart the future of our democracy so your willingness to engage and lead is essential.
You join an elite group today – those with college degrees. You will be viewed by some as privileged, even though you may come from modest backgrounds, because of the quality of the education you have received and your ability to use it to make change in the world around you. This responsibility to the greater good, not just to yourselves or to your families or your future employers, is part and parcel of a college education in my opinion.
You leave Grand Valley today having earned a valuable degree. Your University degree will help open many doors. What you do when you walk through those doors is up to you. Who you become in this world – notice I say “WHO” you become, not “WHAT” you become – is also up to you.
Your lives will create the legacy that defines this 21st century. There will be individuals who are sitting among you today who will become legends. But each of you, together and individually, will create the legacy for this century in a world that is rich with resources and dreams, but plagued by “haves” and “have nots”.
Accepting the mantle of a global citizen scholar requires you to think about the global common good, about the legacy you will create. Within the domains of your professional and personal experiences, you must make a difference and “contribute to the necessities of the society.”
Being a global citizen scholar and creating real change in the world today requires a sense of curiosity and passion, vision beyond yourself, and just plain tenacity. It requires you to think simultaneously about your responsibilities to yourself, your community, the legacy you will leave behind, your family and your friends. It is about ‘ands’ and not ‘ors;’ about synthesis, not compartmentalization.
These traits enable you to see the world in a different way; to create what is now unknown or to re-assemble the pieces of what is already at hand to create something new and different, like when you turn a kaleidoscope, and different patterns and colors emerge in new designs and relationships, creating a whole new world of possibilities, for yourself and for others.
The skills you have honed will enable you to take action and follow your passions; tenacity is what will make the change you create sustainable over time, not simply for you but for the common good. Through the power of your education, your voices must promote the common good for those who cannot be heard. When you accept the responsibility to join your voices with others, the chorus you create will have an impact beyond your imagination and lift the dreams of others.
As I thought about this day—really the first day of your lives as Grand Valley graduates, I was struck by the lives and voices of two very different individuals—Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, and Malcolm X—who lent their voices to communities and causes that needed to be heard.
Elie Wiesel, once said that “The opposite of education is not ignorance, but indifference.” Malcolm X put this another way saying, “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”
We cannot be indifferent to the world and the people around us. In order to make a difference we have to take a stand for what we believe in and recognize the important role each of us can play.
There are those among us today who will make a difference in the world in very big ways; those whose ideas and capacity to leap across chasms will create monumental change in the world. There are many more of us, however, who make differences in much smaller, but equally significant ways. And, often, we won’t even see the difference we’ve made in the lives of people halfway around the globe or right in our own community, but the impact will still be profound.
The citizen scholar recognizes this as an important role and understands that change can, and often does, happen one small act at a time by individuals who have the courage and take the time to stand up for something larger than themselves.
I’m sure you have all heard of the butterfly effect: the idea that a single butterfly’s wings flapping in one part of the world may ultimately cause dramatic weather events far around the world. You have the power that allows you to take a stand and ‘flap your wings’ here in West Michigan and have a significant impact, almost instantaneously, on people and communities around the world.
Addressing graduates at Michigan State some years ago, the poet Maya Angelou said, “Each one of you has the possibility of lighting up somebody’s path, somebody who may not look like you, who may not have your same skin color, who may not call God by the same name, if he or she calls God at all; may dance other dances and sings other songs and eats other foods. But, you have the possibility of being a rainbow in the clouds.”
Each of us will have the opportunity to impact the lives of others, to be a “rainbow in the clouds,” whether in your place of employment, in your local community, or in a community somewhere in the world. Please don’t let the opportunity to make a difference pass you by.
You have received an education that to many in the world could only be a dream. There are young people in towns and cities and villages here in America and all over the world who dream of going to college; who dream of becoming teachers and doctors and engineers and scientists; who dream of making a difference. Their dreams are no different from yours, but their opportunities to realize those dreams are limited…limited by their circumstances…their lack of safe drinking water or food to eat; their lack of shelter or lack of safety; their lack of access to schools and teachers and the internet. They are limited not by their lack of dreams, but both by the lack of people who help make their dreams bigger and the lack of resources to realize their dreams. The opportunities you have to make a difference are endless; the impact may be profound.
I would like to leave you today with a quote from Joan Chitt-is-ter, a Benedictine nun and author. She writes that “It is the way we live each of the circumstances of life, the humdrum as well as the extraordinary, the daily as well as the defining moments that determines the quality of our lives.
As tomorrow’s leaders, and as a graduate of this special university, please think each and every day about how you can be a global citizen and scholar. If you do, the ways in which you dream and act will indeed be a special legacy.
Thank you again for this honor and for allowing me the opportunity to talk with you today.